Once upon a time I entered an essay contest sponsored by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, on the topic "Is patriotism difficult to embrace in the world today, and why is it important?" Time has induced a blissful vagueness as to the details of my answer, but I do recall that it was in favor of patriotism, and calculated to appeal to the judges, that is to say, the sort of women who would glory in styling themselves members of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. What can I say? I was in high school, I was impressed by authority, and I wanted to win. Which I did.
The prize was a trip to Washington D.C. for what amounted to a politics summer camp. I'd act coy about what it was, except that anyone who cares is surely able to work out that it was the Washington Workshops Congressional Seminar. I had a miserable time, for a lot of reasons, only one of which is relevant to this post. During the days we seminar members visited landmarks and attended speeches by politicians and lobbyists unimportant enough that they had nothing better to do than talk to teenagers. But by night we participated in the Model Congress, for which we divided into subcommittees and wrote bills. My subcommittee addressed subjecting women to the military draft; again, the memory fails, but I think we were in favor.
You might well ask how, at a time when the draft was and obviously would continue to be a dead letter, this could be a relevant topic. But why shouldn't a fake bill be about a fake issue? Anyway, I was too miserable, insecure, and indifferent to play any part in the creation of the bill, but there was no avoiding the Model Congress proper, which took place on the final evening. Clad in formal attire, we were bussed to what the schedule breathlessly informed us was an actual Congressional office building. There we held debates on each of the four bills, leading up to the voting. In the course of the debate, some of the others went out in the hall to wheel and deal, persuading and promising as though the outcome could possibly be said to matter. I, on the other hand, was so bored that I voted to end debate on our own bill at the earliest opportunity, earning the ire of a girl sitting next to me, who was honestly baffled that I could want such a thing.
The experience wasn't a total loss; I was able to use it in one of my college application essays, where I delicately cast it as my recognition that participating in "the political process" wasn't for me. Today, I'll be more blunt: "the political process" is stupid, soulless, and ugly. In "Five Votes Down," even The West Wing comes, from a liberal perspective, perilously close to admitting it. Leo quotes the old saw about how you don't want people to know how laws and sausages are made. Like a lot of conventional wisdom about politics, this is something people would find profoundly depressing if they took it seriously. Very few admirable human beings believe that their jobs are too upsetting to be in public view.
The law that Leo's Pal wants to pass is gun control. I'll say up front that I'm very much in favor of gun control, provided that the first people it's applied to are the members of the US military. But in any case this law is already so whittled down by compromise that it's meaningless, as a congressman points out in an impassioned speech that would be moving if it weren't implicitly in favor of trying to solve social problems by authoritarian bans on inherently harmless behavior. So what we have here is 45 minutes of obnoxious maneuvering in favor of a pointless law. God bless America. The episode halfheartedly pushes the gradual change meme, but there's no force behind it, as if even the script can't bring itself to believe legislation matters.
At the end of the episode, when Leo says "It was hubris and we got what we deserved," that might seem like a criticism of the entire political process, but (part from being a reflection on the collapse of Leo's marriage, I think it's actually a criticism of their specific behavior in this episode, most notably Josh's pleasure in being the president's enforcer. Which apparently was wrong, not because the legislature ought to be independent of the executive under separation of powers, but because, as the slimy politician with whom Hoynes intercedes says, "These are grown men, with pride and dignity. They can't be manhandled." The ones whose interests matter, in other words, are the politicians, not the citizens. The final scenes are melancholy, not because the law that has been passed will contribute nothing to society, but because Leo's Pal didn't get enough credit for it.
(I would add that this episode gives the lie to the notion, popular among liberals otherwise at a loss to explain why Obama hasn't done all the hopey-changey things they convinced themselves he would, that the president has no power over Congress. He has leverage; the question is where and to what degree he opts to use it.)
The scenes in which Leo's marriage falls apart, although a little hard to swallow as drama-- why, after a long political career, are they just confronting this issue now?-- are wonderfully performed by John Spencer, particularly the beats in which, guilt-stricken and uncertain, he offers to carry her bags to the cab and asks her to call him before she goes to sleep. The discussion between Leo and Hoynes, in which the latter, who was a cartoon in his first appearance, proves to be a human being after all, is effective too. The fact that Hoynes is simultaneously presented as a kindly man and a savvy political manipulator is, for The West Wing, verging on morally complex, a reflection of the fact that Hoynes won't officially join The Good Guys until the third season episode "Stirred."
The comic relief of "Five Votes Down" comes in two forms: (1) the subplot with Toby's stock windfall, which is another example of The West Wing creating the appearance of a scandal but expecting us to believe that the politician involved is really as virtuous as he claims, and again asks us to sympathize with the (literally) poor White House staff, who only make six-figure salaries and therefore might as well not have jobs at all; and (2) the scene where Bartlet is whacked out on pain pills. This is more goofy-but-lovable-sitcom-dad stuff, and Martin Sheen has a lot of fun with it, but what would happen if there was a national crisis while the president was high on Vicodin and Percocet? The same thing that would happen if his MS was acting up, I suppose, but that's a topic for another time.
Up next: the episode from which this blog's title is drawn, in which the White House staff are forced, possibly at gunpoint, to talk to people who, despite not being members of the political class, have the audacity to concern themselves with various issues. Also, some subtle but pernicious sexism.